How bad is the situation for Baroness Warsi?

The Conservative co-chair faces an investigation over expenses. Will she be forced to stand down?

It must be a relief for Jeremy Hunt that he is no longer the only cabinet member under pressure. Attention is currently focused on Baroness Warsi, who is facing calls to stand down after being accused of charging expenses while staying somewhere rent-free. The Lords’ commissioner into standards, Paul Kernaghan, has been asked to hold an official investigation into her conduct.

It has been alleged that the Tory peer – the first Muslim woman to become a cabinet minister – received allowances of £165.50 a night while staying at a friend’s flat in London.

Warsi admits to staying at the flat in Acton, west London, about 12 times over a six week period in February and March 2008. The flat belonged to Naweed Khan, a Conservative Party worker who was later appointed as her special adviser. Warsi maintains that she gave Khan “appropriate financial payment equivalent to what I was paying at the time in hotel costs”. Khan has released a statement confirming that this was the arrangement.

The allegation comes from  Wafik Moustafa, who owns the house. Moustafa, who runs the Conservative Arab Network, told the Sunday Times: "Baroness Warsi paid no rent, nor did she pay any utilities bill or council tax."

How bad is this for Warsi? It is difficult to tell. The accusations are, in the words of Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, "very muddy and blurred". (Graham also suggested, however, that Warsi should not continue to sit in the cabinet until the investigation has been completed).

Yet it is certainly embarrassing, and will not strengthen her position in the party. Warsi is already under pressure over her performance as the Conservative Party’s co-chairman. She lacks authority among her Tory colleagues, and many believe she hasn’t been fighting for the party after poor local election results. While she is widely expected to survive a reshuffle later this year, this development will not help her standing with other Tory MPs. Questions about her competence have come to the fore. A Daily Mail article this morning implies that she was promoted because she “symbolised the public face of a Conservative Party modernised and reformed by David Cameron.” The headline screams: “A Muslim, northern, working-class mum hand-picked for Cameron's A-list... But is Sayeeda Warsi up to the job?” It is a classically insidious line, but one that could be potentially damaging.

The Tory party has so far downplayed the importance of the allegations. It remains to be seen whether more evidence emerges and  the pressure grows sufficiently that Warsi steps down. Certainly, her authority within her own party will not be helped.
 

Warsi enters Downing Street for her first cabinet meeting. May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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